Posted tagged ‘university news’

No news is good news

June 25, 2012

I have previously in this blog suggested that, on the whole, universities do not understand what use to make of their websites. Most of these are poorly designed, are excessively busy, confuse the visitor with complex navigation, and contain information unlikely to be of even passing interest to the average reader. The latter category most particularly includes so-called ‘news’ items.

It is evidently believed in many universities that the latest achievements of faculty and forthcoming events are hugely exciting and eagerly awaited by all. ¬†Often they dominate the university’s home page, not least because they are frequently accompanied by excessively large photographs, as in this case. Some universities give so much space to news, announcements and events that almost no room is left for the real links that most visitors are likely to want.

So here is a message for those who determine the content of university websites: though this may be hard to accept, in reality nobody is interested in your news. I suspect that often these items are published as a form of recognition for those colleagues mentioned in them, but that is a misguided use of valuable online real estate. It is perfectly appropriate to have, somewhere in the links, a path to university news items, but they should not themselves be displayed on the home page. The latter should be clean, with plenty of white space, and with logical and easy to follow navigation links.

Most universities still do not seem to understand what use they can and should make of the internet. But a start would be to avoid excessive self-promotion; it doesn’t work as a PR tool, and it satisfies no other objectives.

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Telling the university story

January 6, 2011

If you have some time on your hands and nothing better to do, have a look at a university – any university – archive of press releases. You can usually find these in the ‘news’ section that is generally linked from the university home page. What do you see? What purpose do these press releases have?

Overwhelmingly, universities use press releases like the Soviet Union used reports on the last five-year-plan: stories of amazing successes and achievements, presented with all the compelling urgency of a report on meeting tractor production targets. I suspect that the readership figures are tiny, and a substantial proportion of the readers will be those named in each report. If you want some examples – and these are taken at random and are no better and no worse than hundreds of others, so I’m not targeting the institutions in particular – you can see a couple¬†here and here. In fact, some of the items are interesting and even important, but will not achieve wider circulation by being put there.

If that’s what you find, what do you not find? Any kind of thoughtful analysis or advocacy of the university or higher education position. No assessment of pedagogy, no debate on current higher education problems and issues, no discussion about resourcing or strategy. In short, nothing that will attract casual readers looking for something to stimulate them; and nothing that will persuade anyone to support the institution or the sector.

This approach carries over into most universities’ public relations strategy. Think of an important or sensitive issue, and you can be sure that the university’s position on it is to keep very silent in public. This approach is in some ways understandable. Shouting over the airwaves can be risky if the topic is, say, current government policy, as politicians may find that irritating and may turn negative. But on the other hand, what has become alarmingly clear is that universities are not winning any of the arguments in the eyes of the public, in part because the public have no idea what case they are trying to make, or what arguments exist to back that case.

My advice would be this. If you have good news about research successes, human interest stories involving students, announcements about the weather, and so forth, send these directly to those likely to be interested or concerned, and include them in web pages that are specifically dedicated to the individuals or subject areas concerned. Don’t maintain a ‘news’ page which is really given over to advertisements. But do have a PR strategy that allows the university to make a case to advance its interests and those of the sector, and use it to raise awareness of critical issues

Secondly, put a face on it. I believe that one vital task for a university head is to present the institution’s case. It may sometimes seem ego-centric, but it can be very effective and can work well for the university. Deans, department heads, senior researchers and others can also be very effective in advancing the case.

Thirdly, be open and honest. Don’t have a news section that is full of soft focus stories about triumphs and achievements, but tell the institution’s story as it is, showing where it is aiming to go. Make it interesting, and make it engaging. Make it something that does not prompt readers to respond cynically.

Over recent months, as universities have increasingly been targeted aggressively by politicians and public commentators, I have been alarmed at how ineffective they have been in responding and in making a public case. I suspect some academics feel that a PR strategy somehow cheapens them. That is a dangerous view to hold; if we cannot persuade successfully, we may pay a very heavy price.

Spreading the news

August 9, 2010

When I was a teenager I somehow got on to a mailing list of the government of the then German Democratic Republic (East Germany). I never quite worked out how I managed this, but what I got were regular magazines claiming to disseminate ‘news’ from the GDR. The news items were all very similar: they told of new achievements by East German scientists and sportspeople; of new economic triumphs which made the GDR the most prosperous and happy country on earth; of the sheer genius of their top politicians and the obvious rightness of all their policies; of the amazing successes of the Soviet Union and its allies; of the evil intentions of top capitalists in West Germany and elsewhere. And more stuff where that came from. Of course it was all just propaganda and spin, and these magazines never touched on complex political debates or ethical questions.

I confess I sometimes get a very similar feelings when I read the ‘news’ sections of university websites the world over. It’s all about the latest triumphs and successes, and the superiority of that particular university’s strategies and policies. There is never anything to tax the brain or to stimulate discussion. Of course universities are as entitled as anyone to seek to disseminate their good news stories; however, my suspicion is that these stories don’t serve any tangible purpose. I doubt that they attract enthusiastic readers, and I imagine that those who do read them apply an immediate discount for propaganda and spin.

Most universities have professional and effective media relations staff, and they generally know how to get stories into the public domain. Should they be spending less time reporting on the latest triumphs in implementing the Five Year Plan ahead of schedule, and focus more – or at least focus in addition – on topics and issues that are controversial and on which the university or some of its key staff have something important to say? If they did that, I suspect that the the news pages as a whole would attract more attention.